On Alan Greenspan, Metaphors, and Allegory (With a Detour to Montaillou)

My apologies for the long blogging silence these past months.  Teaching the much-feared Dartmouth winter term was as challenging as ever.  Maybe it takes a full spring term to recover from the winter term.  But here we are again, with fresh energy and news from the interwebs.  In case you haven’t heard: the season produced a remarkable crop of historical statements by Very Wise Men in business and finance.   There was first of all Alan Greenspan’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal of March 29, 2011, which contained this gem:

Today’s competitive markets, whether we seek to recognise it or not, are driven by an international version of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that is unredeemably opaque. With notably rare exceptions (2008, for example), the global “invisible hand” has created relatively stable exchange rates, interest rates, prices, and wage rates.

As Henry Farrell noted,

It’s best not to interpret this as an empirical claim, but a carefully-thought-out bid for Internet immortality. It has the sublime combination of supreme self-confidence and utter cluelessness of previously successful memes such as “I am aware of all Internet traditions” and the “argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care,” but with added Greenspanny goodness. I tried to think of useful variations on the way in to work this morning – “With notably rare exceptions, Russian Roulette is a fun, safe game for all the family to play,” and “With notably rare exceptions, (the Third Punic War for example), the Carthaginian war machine was extremely successful,” but none do proper justice to the magnificence of the original.

Photo: flickr

Within 24 hours, the clever folks at Crooked Timber generated more than 330 Greenspanisms along those same lines, forming one of the most hilarious comments’ threads in memory.  An instant classic.  Greenspan’s legacy as Chairman of the Fed might be rather shaken, but his contribution to the history of rhetoric is now undisputed.

This could be a great parlor game (are there still parlors anywhere?) for the historically inclined:

“With notably rare exceptions (1346-48, for instance), the Black Death had little impact on medieval society.”

“With notably rare exceptions, Chernobyl reactor #4 functioned splendidly.”

“With notably rare exceptions, Austrian Archdukes rather enjoyed their trips to Sarajevo.”

And so forth.

Not to be outdone, Google’s Chief economist, Hal Varian, had this to say in The Economist‘s pages:

If you look at the history of the world, up until 1700 nothing much happened—GDP growth per capita was essentially flat. Then the wonderful Industrial Revolution happened and things took off.

Enough to give this medievalist an apoplexy of course, but Varian then continued:

There’s a recent study out of the University of Michigan, where they had a team of students find answers to a set of questions using materials in the campus library. Then another team had to answer the same set of questions using Google. It took them 7 minutes to answer the questions on Google and 22 minutes to answer them in the library. Think about all the time saved! Thirty years ago, getting answers was really expensive, so we asked very few questions. Now getting answers is cheap, so we ask billions of questions a day, like “what is Jennifer Aniston having for breakfast?” We would have never asked that 30 years ago.

I suppose this deserved the snarky responses it got.  (Disclosure: I googled “Jennifer Aniston,” since I had no idea who that might be).  Varian obliged all those who have been warning against the trivialization of our culture, the social, psychological, and even neurological consequences of new media, and the growing confusion between data and knowledge—never mind insight.  Bill Keller reviewed some of this literature recently in a New York Times Magazine essay (“The Twitter Trap”) that generated, surprise, brief discussion on the web.

It is of course not true that in the past “we asked very few questions,” as Varian claimed, but I’d like to make a slightly different point.  Last fall, while teaching Montaillou—Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s study of a French peasant community in the fourteenth century on the basis of inquisitorial records—I

Two Parfait perform the consolamentum, while Franciscan friars look on in horror (13th c.)

was once again struck not only by the eager curiosity of these illiterate men and women, their endless search for answers to a wide range of profound questions, but also by their evident delight in construing answers through stories, exempla, and allegories.

Concretely: what do they talk about in their moments of leisure, sitting by the fire at night, or resting in the sun, while the women congenially delouse their husbands/lovers? Do they discuss what Queen Joan of Burgundy will be wearing at the royal wedding?  What St Elizabeth of Hungary had for breakfast?  Well, no.  Here are old men talking while sitting under the proverbial village elm: “The trees come from the nature of the earth and not from God,” says one of them (Montaillou, p. 322), as if just making conversation.  Or here is Pierre Maury chatting with his friend Arnaud Sicre.  Sicre castigates Pierre for having bought a pair of expensive shoes for the Cathar leader Bélibaste:

A pair of ordinary shoes would have done for Bélibaste. He works sitting down in his workroom, whereas you are always traveling up hill and down dale.”  Upon which Pierre launches into a long speech on the soul, his own, Bélibaste’s and others.  He pointed out that in the building of a tower, more trouble is taken strengthening the base (the immortal soul) than the top (the mortal body):  ‘That is why I have given shoes, tunics, hose and cloaks to thirteen goodmen, of whom some are already before the Holy Father, so that they pray for me (…) When he dies, Bélibaste’s soul will certainly be saved; it will ascend to Heaven, borne up by angels.’ (Montaillou, p. 297–8).

Pierre’s aim is not to argue simply that the Cathar leader will reward donations with a means to salvation.  Rather, his metaphor of the tower marvelously reminds Arnaud that spiritual values always trump material ones, and that to strive for spiritual gain is more “fundamental.”

Allegory helps to imaginatively address more complex questions, like the difficult relationship, in some Cathar faiths, between soul, spirit, and body.  Philippe d’Alayrac explains the problem by this tale:

Once upon a time two believers in Catharism found themselves close to a river.  One of them fell asleep; the other stayed awake.  From the mouth of the sleeper he saw emerge a creature like a lizard.  Suddenly the lizard, using a plank that stretched from one bank to the other, crossed over the river.  On the other bank there was the fleshless skull of an ass.  And the lizard ran in and out of the opening in the skull.  Then it came back over the plank and re-entered the sleeper’s mouth.  It did that once or twice.  Observing the lizard, the man who was awake thought of a trick: he waited until the lizard was on the other side of the river and approaching the ass’s skull, and then he took away the plank.  The lizard left the ass’s head and returned to the bank.  But he could not get across: the plank was gone.  Then the body of the sleeper began to trash about but it was unable to wake, despite all efforts of the watcher to arouse it from sleep.  Finally, the watcher put the plank back across the river.  Then the lizard was able to get back and re-enter the body of the sleeper through the mouth.  The sleeper immediately awoke and told his friend the dream he had just had.

“I dreamed,” he said, “that I was crossing the river on a plank, and then I went into a great palace with many towers and rooms, and when I wanted to come back to the place from which I had set out, there was no plank!  I could not get across—I would have drowned in the river.  That was why I trashed about in my sleep.  Until the plank was put back again, and I could return.”

The two believers wondered greatly at this adventure, and went and told a Parfait, who gave them the key to the mystery: the soul, he told them, remains in a man’s body all the time, but a man’s spirit or mind goes in and out, just like the lizard which went from the sleeper’s mouth to the ass’s head and vice versa. (Montaillou, p. 351–2; text slightly adapted on the basis of the original inquisitorial record, ed. Jean Duvernoy, Le Registre d’inquisition de Jacques Fournier, évêque de Pamiers, 1318-1325: manuscrit Vat. latin n° 4030 de la Bibliothèque vaticane [Toulouse, 1965], vol. 3, p. 152).

[Permit me a pedantic aside: Le Roy Ladurie does not explain very well this theological construct, based on 1 Thess. 5:23 but augmented and complicated by pre-Christian popular thought, in neither the English version of Montaillou nor the longer, original French version.  To fully enjoy the intricacy of this tale, one needs to consult the comments in the French translation of the inquisitorial record by Jean Duvernoy, Le registre d’Inquisition de Jacques Fournier (Paris: Mouton, 1978), vol. 3, p. 945-6 and 1026 note 49; and Le Roy Ladurie’s more obscure but fascinating study of Languedoc lore, Jasmin’s Witch (New York: George Braziller, 1987), p. 188–191.  For those really, really interested in the complexities and varieties of Cathar belief, the ultimate source is in German, about 1000 pages long, and hard to find: Gerhard Rottenwöhrer, Der Katharismus (Bad Honnef: Bock Verlag, 1982-93, repr. 2007).]

But whatever the ins-and-outs of this particular story, it brings home quite well the essential benefits of thinking and teaching through allegory.  It renders abstract concepts concrete and places them in a human context easily accessible, while whetting the appetite for more advanced knowledge.  Why is the spirit so restless? (It visits the country of the dead.)  Does the Parfait’s spirit make these journeys as well, or it this only a problem of lesser mortals, I mean, lesser believers? (I wished Philippe had answered that one!).

And we can also easily appreciate the essential cognitive or even hermeneutical procedures at work here.  In contrast to our current, Vardian-touted individual googling, the medieval villagers of Montaillou raised questions and formulated answers socially and discursively using metaphor for a creative, “interactive”, and—in allegory—sustained reflection on the significance of the data, i.e. the implications.  In other words, the process provided insight, not information.  I am speaking ideally here, of course, since much of this may have been done more in the manner of a bricoleur than of a creative artist.  But it must have come naturally, nurtured by the religious interests of the villagers.  While Western thinkers from Plato to St Augustine (not to mention later Enlightenment thinkers) cautioned against the dangers and deceptions of story telling, the Bible is of course full of allegory and parable; all ancient religious systems that I know incorporated this path to knowledge.

This is why, to come back to my point of departure, I do have a certain amount of sympathy for Greenspan’s formulation, droll as it might seem at first.  With all his linguistic prowess and educated in a world that was blessedly Google-free, he at least had the wisdom to remind us of Adam Smith’s old metaphor, the invisible hand.  It has been used and abused in the past, sure enough, and Greenspan himself stretched it to absurd limits, so to speak.  And yet, his op-ed may have succeeded in breathing new life in the metaphor.  We can now once again contemplate the key question: whose invisible hand exactly is this, anyway?

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One thought on “On Alan Greenspan, Metaphors, and Allegory (With a Detour to Montaillou)

  1. Yes, much used and abused. Clearly he’s not speaking of Adam Smith’s invisible hand as Smith used the metaphor only once in WoN, somewhere in the middle (IV.2.9) and he used it in a very restricted sense: a discussion of choices of investment in domestic versus foreign industry–not a general discussion of how markets work.

    Greenspan would have benefited from reading Smith, especially the section on banking: “To restrain private people, it may be said, from receiving in payment the promissory notes of a banker, for any sum whether great or small, when they themselves are willing to receive them, or to restrain a banker from issuing such notes, when all his neighbours are willing to accept of them, is a manifest violation of that natural liberty which it is the proper business of law not to infringe, but to support. Such regulations may, no doubt, be considered as in some respects a violation of natural liberty. But those exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals, which might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and ought to be, restrained by the laws of all governments, of the most free as well as of the most despotical. The obligation of building party walls, in order to prevent the communication of fire, is a violation of natural liberty exactly of the same kind with the regulations of the banking trade which are here proposed. ” (II.2.94)

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